Officials from Royalston and Athol discuss the wastewater process at the Royalston wastewater plant.

The Worcester County towns of Athol and Royalston have entered into a three-year agreement for shared wastewater services, further solidifying the cooperation between the communities in their quest to provide cost-effective municipal services.

Following an 18-month pilot program, the towns began a three-year agreement on July 1 that has three Athol employees servicing a small wastewater plant in south Royalston. According to officials, the partnership provides Royalston with wastewater services for half the amount charged by the private sector, puts extra money into Athol’s wastewater enterprise fund, increases the incomes of Athol wastewater workers, and protects the nearby Millers River.

“It’s just better for everybody,” said Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. “Better for the river, better for the communities, better financially for the ratepayers — and that’s why we’re really happy that we’ve got this signed up for the foreseeable future.”

Officials from both communities credit their history of collaboration for the success of the wastewater partnership so far. The two towns already share a school district, and participate in regional veterans’ and animal control programs.

Royalston had been seeking a more permanent wastewater solution after its operator quit a few years back, said Deb D’Amico, chair of the Royalston Select Board. The town hired a retired operator to help out, she said, and he asked Athol wastewater workers to help operate the plant, as independent contractors during their off hours.

Meanwhile, Royalston sought proposals for a private contractor to operate the plant, which serves about 52 homes. The plant had been made larger to support additional development that never materialized, making it more expensive to operate per ratepayer, she said. Royalston soon found out just how expensive — when it received bids for $130,000 to $150,000 a year.

“We are a very small town,” D’Amico said. “We just did not have the budget for that, and we couldn’t ask our ratepayers to shoulder that expense.”

As officials sought an answer to their wastewater problem, D’Amico said, employees coordinated a plan and approached them with the idea for a joint operation.

“One of the nice things about this is that it wasn’t the leaders of the towns who came up with this,” D’Amico said. “It was the folks who actually were working on the system.”

During the pilot phase, Athol workers initially had to spend significant time at the plant to get it in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations, given that the plant had been operated for so long with part-time and retired workers, said Dick Kilhart, Athol’s public works superintendent. Once the workers developed a routine and a better understanding of the plant’s needs, he said, they were able to decrease the number of hours needed in Royalston.

During the first year of the three-year agreement, Royalston will pay Athol $5,205 monthly, or $62,460 a year, for the plant’s operation. The payments will then increase by 2.5% annually. Royalston will pay for the plant’s capital, chemical, analytical and utility costs.

Athol’s three wastewater employees will receive annual stipends of $5,000 to $6,000, depending on their job title. Any additional funds left over will go into Athol’s wastewater enterprise fund, giving ratepayers an additional cushion for expenses related to the system.

D’Amico said she sees the partnership possibly extending well beyond the three-year agreement, and Suhoski said they might be able to build a small training capacity to increase the pipeline for wastewater expertise — and eventually be able to hire an additional employee devoted to the Royalston work.

Given that many wastewater operators are approaching retirement and the state faces a shortage, Kilhart said he hopes this partnership will encourage other regionalization efforts to address the shortage.

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